The Social Business

The thirteenth step could well prove the toughest

I had an interesting day in Derbyshire on Saturday at an event run by the East Midlands School for Social Entrepreneurs and members of the Transition movement.

I was there to make the case for good marketing. My basic argument is that many of us who think that the world – and business – need to be run differently are pretty sceptical (or even hostile) towards marketing. We also think that it can only be done by big brands with loads of cash, who push unwanted products onto an unsuspecting public. My argument is that it doesn’t have to be like that – and that proper marketing – building relationships with people – can come naturally to social businesses if they just think it through.

The premise of the day was to explore whether a next step for some Transition initiatives could be to set up social enterprises. Let me be clear from the start, I have the kind of knowledge of Transition that you get from reading about it in magazine articles – so I don’t pretend to be an expert. But it does seem to make sense that, after following the twelve steps of Transition, some communities may go on to set up social businesses to help to build a different type of economy.

I’ve written a fair bit in the past about what I see as the differences between social activists and social entrepreneurs. I’d say that the majority of people who were there on Saturday were activists – and I’d guess that that’s pretty typical of the Transition movement.

I’m not saying that activism is not important. It’s vital, and there’s clearly some inspiring stuff happening in Transition initiatives around the country. It’s an idea which has clearly captured people’s imagination. But I would argue that making the next step – if that is to be settting up social enterprises – requires a different mindset.

I’m not suggesting that you need to be some kind of socially enterprising Del-Boy, or have an MBA, to set up a social enterprise. Far from it. But making changes to your own lifestyle – and teaming up with others to do the same – is quite different to setting up businesses which need to sustain themselves through the money they make.

I look at my own background for evidence of this. I never thought I’d get involved in business – not even social business – because I thought business was for fat-cat capitalists. I couldn’t understand how anyone who wanted to change the world could also find motivation in making money. Even if that money was ultimately used to do more good.

I was hostile towards business. There was a lot of that hostility – understandably – in Belper on Saturday. But to run a social enterprise I think you have to accept that things aren’t so black and white. That sometimes you have to compromise, or be pragmatic, or take decisions which might not sit totally comfortably with your value base. You might have to do deals with other businesses which traditionally you’ve seen as the enemy. This might mean you fall out with those who believe in the simple rights and wrongs of capitalism.

On a practical level it also involves different skills. And I believe that these skills can be learnt, but it takes time. This is a point relevant to the whole debate about Big Society. Phillip Blond wrote a letter to the Observer on Sunday expressing how he is puzzled by the hostility of people like me towards Big Society. (By the way, I’d be grateful if anyone can point me to the evidence for Blond’s assertion that volunteering has doubled in the last few months.)

One reason I’m sceptical is that I believe that it will take time for communities to develop the skills and build up the experience to run lots of services themselves. I do believe that, in the long term, it’s the right direction to be travelling in. But I have done this work for long enough to know that the road to better services is littered with painful, expensive examples of initiatives which haven’t worked. Because, sometimes, people got it wrong, because they were still learning how to run things themselves. And, I would suggest, the people who need better services most are the ones who may take a bit longer to get organised and get things right. Blond and Cameron will suggest I’m being patronising. I think I’m being realistic.

It may be that the Transition entrepreneurs were busy doing other things on Saturday – like traveling to the course on how to set up your own community supported bakery, run by the inspiring Handmade Bakery in the Transition hotspot of Slaithwaite. Either way, I think it’s worth us reflecting on the differences between what it takes to form a movement for change, and to run a business, so that we can continue to do the former, whilst also doing more of the latter.

Categories: Business, Climate Change, Food, Green issues, Marketing, Mutuality, Public services, Social change, Social enterprise, Social entrepreneurs, Social Justice

Big Society, or Fantasy Island? » « Big Society – or People Like Us?

3 Comments

  1. Really helpful to distinguish different local activities that may contribute to a “something better than what we’ve got” society – thanks.
    In response to a post The end of politics as we know it, on the Big Society Network blog I jotted down various strands, and asked where the BS Network would focus and add value:
    1 people’s disaffection with national politics
    2 disillusionment with local consultation/engagement processes
    3 local campaigning around a particular issue
    4 taking over or developing community assets
    5 working in alliances with public services
    6 developing small scale projects – e.g. environmental improvements
    7 volunteering
    8 acting as a trustee or committee member

    Mapping that landscape may be something BSN needs to do in order to position its work.
    A more entrepreneurial tack (which maybe you are taking here) could be to spot who has a good grass roots activist approach (e.g. Transition) and look at how to help them make more impact. I like it.

  2. “(By the way, I’d be grateful if anyone can point me to the evidence for Blond’s assertion that volunteering has doubled in the last few months.)”

    I think we’ll wait for him to do that. It’s utter beanbags!

  3. “I was hostile towards business. There was a lot of that hostility – understandably – in Belper on Saturday. But to run a social enterprise I think you have to accept that things aren’t so black and white. That sometimes you have to compromise, or be pragmatic, or take decisions which might not sit totally comfortably with your value base. You might have to do deals with other businesses which traditionally you’ve seen as the enemy. This might mean you fall out with those who believe in the simple rights and wrongs of capitalism.”

    This is so right! At the House of St. Barnabas in Soho (homeless charity)we have entered into a partnership with a private business that describes itself as “the worlds leading private members club and concierge service”. Those who don’t know us and some that do often have mixed feelings towards us. They are challenged by the concept of having the exclusive and the inclusive in one building. We are challenged by what we are doing at the house also. As a charity we have to adapt to new ways of working and as a private business so do Quintessentially. What is irrefutable is the fact that we are getting far better employment outcomes for people who are experiencing or have recently experienced homelessness. In my 10 years of working in the homelessness sector I have never seen such results.

    I would like to see a better world. One in which big business cannot get away with some of the terrible practises that we have seen in the past, a world that is fairer to the less well off and one that protects the planet we live on but I realise that this transition can only be made in stages. It serves no purpose to judge all business as bad. That kind of a stance does not encourage business to improve their working practises. Those who are passionate about improving peoples lives and the condition of the planet need to work with business to bring about lasting change. We cannot hop from where we are now to a perfect world!! Quintessentially Soho at the House of St. Barnabas is a ground breaking organisation and I’m proud to say I’ve made a contribution to it.

    I love the energy for change that social enterprise produces but I have to say that there are elements within it that in many ways live in cloud cuckoo land. You are not a social enterprise in my view if you cannot become at some point independent from grant funding. Profit is not a dirty word, it is what we as individuals do with the profit we make that produces good or bad results.

    If social enteprises are uncomfortable with marketing they probably will not last. All power to those who march, lobby and protest in order to change the world. I admire them but lets pause in our judgement of those “working with the enemy”. It’s just another method of achieving the same goal and only time will tell us which method will prove the most fruitful. http://www.quintessentiallysoho.com/

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